Student Advocacy Club Uplifting Voices in the NEC


Instagram @mococonnects

Logo for the Club MoCo ConNECts.

Devin Etta, Staff Writer

What started as a small bit of criticism between friends about the February 17th, 2021 Student Member of the Board of Education (SMOB) nomination convention turned into the collective creation of a youth advocacy club fighting to bring opportunities to underrepresented schools in the Northeast Consortium of Montgomery County.

Starting in March of 2021, MoCo ConNECts is an organization led by student leaders from a variety of traditionally underrepresented middle and high schools in the Northeast Consortium- consisting of Blake, Paint Branch, and Springbrook Highschool. The group’s focus is on engaging more students from the NEC to participate in student government and advocacy on the county level. So far, the thriving group managed to receive meetings with 2022 Maryland governor candidate Ashwani Jain, numerous Montgomery County Regionals (MCR) officer candidates, and the 44th SMOB office-seeker Hana O’Looney. Additionally, the group developed leadership teams, task departments, and chapters for all three NEC schools to properly execute tasks.

The Founder of ConNECts, and president of the Springbrook High Chapter, is junior Alex  Nguyen, who established the group to coincide with the Nomination Convention for SMOB candidates led by MCR. 

The SMOB nomination filing process, according to the County SMOB site, begins in January and requires eligible students to file for the position by submitting the proper paperwork and then campaigning for a candidate nomination. The official nomination process takes place during the SMOB Candidate Nomination Convention, which occurs under the Special Elections Committee (SEC), a branch of MCR. This is a county-wide convocation that is run as a webinar. It invites all MCPS students to listen to each candidate’s platform and gradually eliminate candidates until two finalists are left. In this year’s nomination group there were no candidates from the Northeast Consortium who ran for the SMOB position. At the end of the convention, the two final SMOB candidates both came from Richard Montgomery High School, Hana O’Looney and Henry Kaye, with O’Looney ultimately winning the seat during voting on April 22-23. 

 “I was really annoyed that there were very few candidates who represented us,” said MoCo ConNECts founder Nguyen, whose response echoed the criticism over social media from other students in the county about the two SMOB finalists being from the same school. 

Nguyen adds that he “didn’t want to see another SMOB from a rich area.”  Nguyen’s comment is based on the fact that, in the past five years, six out of ten SMOB finalists have come from Richard Montgomery, one of the more affluent and well-resourced schools in Montgomery County. Although Montgomery County is claimed by WalletHub as one of the most diverse areas in the United States, the socio-economic differences that exist in the county are evident in the schools and, in this case, SMOB representation.   

“It’s hard for people to gain experience because those opportunities don’t really feel open to us,” Holly Tran, a Paint Branch High School junior adds. Tran, Paint Branch’s MoCo ConNECts President, sees student government as an important part of schools and SMOB as an important piece of that. She explains that MoCo ConNECts is focusing on creating more opportunities for students in schools like those in the NEC that more resourced schools like Richard Montgomery and the “W schools” (wealthy upcounty schools Wooton, Walter Johnson, and Whitman) might close off.  

In order to offer more NEC students opportunities into student advocacy, ConNECts has been putting organizations like MCR in the spotlight by providing information on their work for representation in the county and ways the NEC can get involved. Recently, the leadership team has achieved many meetings with MCR officers and candidates to promote greater participation in their future works. ConNECts involvements with MCR lead to several club members finding a position as delegates for MCR officer elections. 

 In the MCR officer elections, only delegates are allowed to vote for the new MCR board.  Proportionally representing each school, the delegates hear from the candidates and vote on who they prefer to lead their organization. Each year, the newly elected MCR officers pick out a new executive board of about 90 members. It’s also noted that representation for the SEC branch “is HIGHLY encouraged,” according to the County’s Student Leadership site. 

Unfortunately, the process raises a lot of concern for students on the outside looking in. Tran describes how MCR often seems detached from other SGA’s like those in the NEC and perpetuates an advocacy bubble where many can’t get in. MCR has a lot of Richard Montgomery representatives, which “the NEC and downcounty schools don’t have connections with,” Tran adds. But hopefully, with ConNECts, she expects to “see more connections” while working in liaison with MCR. 

 Nguyen expressed how hesitant he was to form the group because he didn’t think he was a “natural leader.” However, he felt like “something needed to happen […] to get students in the NEC involved in student advocacy.” And Ultimately, CoNECts has done just that. 

Bethania Yonas, a junior at Paint Branch and secretary of the club, expresses that the club is about “empowerment” and “bringing awareness.” The goals of the club are to empower the students of the NEC while acknowledging the problems within the student government that were “never thought about since it was our normal.” Being a Montgomery County student all of her life, Yonas has witnessed the discouragement NEC students have felt due to lack of involvement in county-wide student advocacy opportunities. “It is unfair that this and the quality of education is determined just because of a zip code.” 

As Montgomery continues to be divided due to reasons like student government and representation, a club like MoCo ConNECts can inspire the county to achieve the progressiveness it needs. 

“We are working to demand that the county and other student-led organizations listen to us,” Yonas adds. “Through this, we are hoping to leave a lasting impact that will change the student advocacy atmosphere of Paint Branch and the rest of NEC for the generations to come.”